TALES OF THE GOLD MONKEY:
THE COMPLETE SERIES
Studio: Shout Factory
Film Length: 16 hours, 48 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Release Date: June 8, 2010
In 1981, a couple of filmmakers named Lucas and Spielberg released a small film called Raiders of the Lost Ark. The success of Raiders, with its 1930s setting and its cliffhanger movie serial tone, made the television networks attempt to emulate that success. In the fall of 1982, 2 of the 3 major networks introduced their own series based on larger than life heroes from the 1930s. CBS premiered a series called Bring ‘Em Back Alive which was based very loosely on the life of big game hunter Frank Buck, starring Bruce Boxleitner and Cindy Morgan. ABC premiered its own adventure series that same season, also set in the 1930s, called Tales of the Gold Monkey, created by Donald Bellisario (Magnum, P.I., JAG). Although both shows are fondly remembered to this day, both series were cancelled after only one season.
The hero of Tales of the Gold Monkey is Jake Cutter (Stephen Collins), a former pilot for the legendary Flying Tigers who finds himself flying freight, and people, in the vicinity of the fictional South Pacific island of Boragora in the middle of 1938. Jake’s constant companion is his one-eyed dog, Jack, whose sapphire and opal artificial eye was lost after Jake lost it in a high stakes poker game. Corky (Jeff Mackay) is Jake’s absent-minded mechanic and friend. Bon Chance Louie (Ron Moody, Roddy McDowall) is the proprietor of the Monkey Bar and the Magistrate of Justice for Boragora who has a disreputable and mysterious past. Sarah Stickney White (Caitlin O’Heaney) is the entertainer in the Monkey Bar who also happens to be an American spy. Their friend Reverend Willie Tenboom (John Calvin) has an eye for the young island maidens and is in fact a German spy for the Wehrmacht. The setting and personalities in this series are ripe for adventure and intrigue, and Tales of the Gold Monkey never fails to deliver these qualities.
Tales of the Gold Monkey is obviously modeled after Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (1939) with qualities of other 30s and 40s films thrown into the mix. This series also owes a debt to Milton Caniff’s classic comic strip Terry and the Pirates. Jake Cutter even has his own Dragon Lady, like Caniff’s Terry, in the form of Princess Koji (Marta DuBois), a beautiful Asian princess of Japanese and Irish descent.
I remember this show fondly even though I had not seen it for many years and I wondered whether Tales of the Gold Monkey would stand up well over 25 years later. Sometimes memories artificially elevate the quality of films, television shows, and other experiences. I am pleased to report that this reviewer finds that Tales of the Gold Monkey has withstood the test of time and is even better than I remembered. Like the films that influenced it, such as Only Angels Have Wings, Casablanca, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Tales of the Gold Monkey has a consistent level of quality which makes it remembered fondly, and deservedly so, by many fans to this day.
Tales of the Gold Monkey is always linked inextricably in my mind to Magnum, P.I., which was also in production during this same period. Both series shared the same creator (Donald Bellisario), some of the same writers, producers, and crew, and many actors who appeared in both series: Jeff Mackay, Marta Dubois, John Hillerman, and Lance LeGault, are just a few of the actors who appeared in both shows. Magnum, P.I. was always a personal favorite of mine so it is little wonder that I enjoy this series as well.
Interestingly enough, Tales of the Gold Monkey was pitched originally to the television networks in 1979, a few years before Raiders of the Lost Ark, and was universally rejected at that time. After the success of Raiders in 1981, the networks were understandably interested in producing series with a two-fisted hero in a 1930s setting, and Tales of the Gold Monkey finally had its pilot episode produced in early 1982, and was picked up shortly after by ABC.
Although Tales of the Gold Monkey was not a ratings juggernaut in the United States during its initial run, it was becoming so popular by the end of its first season that it was considered a sure thing for renewal, and it was a huge hit in overseas markets. Unfortunately, network politics resulted in its cancellation in the Spring of 1983.
This set consists of 20 full length episodes plus the 2 hour pilot episode on 6 discs, with all of the special features, other than episode-specific audio commentaries, located on disc 6. The packaging and content are almost identical to the complete series set released by Fabulous Films in Regions 2 and 4 in December of 2009. Shout Factory has licenced this release from Fabulous Films for release in Region 1 for North America. Specific discussion of the subtle differences between this set and the overseas release follows below in the discussion of video and audio.
The series and special features are displayed in a 1:33:1 screen ratio. The image is actually stretched on my widescreen television unless I adjust my settings to the correct screen ratio. The video quality on the individual episodes is good, but not great, for a series from the mid-1980s. Colors are vibrant but contrast is somewhat soft.
Although fans have been clamoring for a DVD release for years, the needs for restoration and clearance of music rights have held up the release until now. Fabulous Films did some restoration work to bring the video quality up to modern standards, and the restoration was evidently needed since there is a periodic frame here and there that still shows deterioration of the videotape masters. In a couple of episodes, the video quality deteriorates minimally from the beginning of the episode until the end, although I will emphasize that this is so minimal that most people will not even take note.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is not exceptional by modern standards but accurately reproduces the audio, with minor improvements, of the original broadcasts. Some viewers may detect a subtle difference in pitch which is attributable to time compression. Although these episodes are complete and uncut, the same encoding was used for this release in NTSC format as was used when the series was first transferred to PAL DVD. The result is that the video and audio have the 4% speedup typical of PAL releases, even though this is in NTSC format, and the running time for the episodes on this set is identical to the R2 and R4 PAL DVD set. This is not a deal-breaker for me, but some people are sensitive to the change in pitch from PAL speedup, so it deserves mention.
The other issue with the audio, although a minor one, is music replacement. One of the impediments all these years to releasing this series on DVD has apparently been music rights. I noticed that the piano music played in the Monkey Bar during the pilot episode has been changed. In the original broadcast, the piano player was playing "As Time Goes By" from the 1931 Broadway musical Everybody’s Welcome, although everyone today associates this song with Casablanca. The piano music in the pilot has been changed for this release to a different tune to which I am unfamiliar. Curiously, the original music remains intact in the PAL DVD set, and has been changed only for this R1 set. Apparently, clearance of the music rights for this song could not be obtained, or were cost-prohibitive, for the North American market.
Although I always disapprove of music replacement on DVD releases of films and TV shows, the replacement of that one song is incidental and trivial for me. I would be furious if the wonderful theme song and dramatic cues had been replaced, but that is not the case. Some might even consider the replacement of that song as an improvement to the extent that hearing the same song throughout the episode in every scene in the Monkey Bar becomes distracting to the point that the viewer might reasonably wonder if the piano player’s play-list is limited to only 1 or 2 songs.
There were at least 3 different scenes in the pilot episode that had the same song playing, and a critic could argue reasonably that the pervasive use of that song is a cheap way to trade on the emotion associated with a classic film. I am still disappointed that this release does not have the original music throughout the pilot episode, but very few people will even notice, and in fact the replacement music sounds almost identical to the original but for the change of song. I have not discovered any other music replacement but I will update this review if I become aware of any other changes.
Disc 6 contains all of the special features, with the exception of the audio commentaries on 4 other episodes on Discs 4 and 5. Writer/producer Tom Greene(also of Magnum, P.I. fame) provides audio commentary on the following 5 episodes: Force of Habit, Last Chance Louie, Naka Jima Kill, Boragora or Bust, and A Distant Shout of Thunder.
The special features on Disc 6 are as follows:
Series Synopsis: A brief text feature describing the series in one paragraph.
Series Concept: A longer text feature describing the concept of the series in greater detail. This feature and the series synopsis appear to have been taken verbatim from the original pitch made to the television networks.
The Making of Tales of the Gold Monkey: This fascinating documentary about the series was filmed last year in anticipation of this DVD release and includes modern interviews with actors Stephen Collins and Caitlin O’Heaney, as well as series writer/producer Tom Greene and series director Harvey Laidman.
Character Biographies: This text feature includes biographies of all of the regular and recurring characters in the series. This appears to have been taken verbatim from the original series bible, since it is very accurate, makes very interesting reading, and is noticeably better written than a typical text feature that is seemingly included as an afterthought with some DVD releases.
Personal Biographies: This text feature consists of biographies of the cast members. The text appears to have been taken directly from original press releases from 1982 since it includes only credits prior to the series and refers to the series implicitly in present tense.
Fact File: This text feature consists of an interesting article that discusses production of the series.
Stills Gallery: This is broken up into 4 different categories - Colour images (note the Anglo spelling), B & W images, Caitlin’s Original Costume Gallery, and Artifacts Gallery.
Credits: Credits for encoding and authoring of this DVD release.
A Distant Sound of Thunder: Optional audio commentary during this episode provided by writer/producer Tom Greene.
A 24 page illustrated booklet is also included with a general summary of the series as well as synopses and cast and crew credits for every episode interspersed with publicity photographs from the series. This is the same booklet that was included with the PAL DVD releases.
I am pleased to report that Tales of the Gold Monkey has stood the test of time just as well as, or better than, many of the media that influenced it. This series has a similar tone of adventure to The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., so if you like those series, you will probably like this one as well. A great deal of effort obviously went into the creation and packaging of these DVDs and it shows. It is unfortunate that this series was not encoded first in NTSC format instead of PAL format so that we could have the episodes at the original playback speed rather than with time compression. I am still disappointed by the minor music replacement on this R1 release which did not occur on the R2 and R4 sets, even though it is almost imperceptible. The special features are extremely well done. They just don’t make shows like this anymore, but I wish they did, and you will too if you have never seen this terrific adventure show. Tales of the Gold Monkey The Complete Series DVD set is highly recommended.